PRINT October 1993

Democracy, Inc.

Andrew Ross' Weather Report

When I first started writing this column I promised a friend, who knows my fickle ways, that I wouldn’t write about art, and this article is no exception. Or is it? If you live in SoHo, as I do, you would have to be psychotic not to recognize daily how the interests of the “art world” are still quite fully identified with this tightly zoned area of downtown Manhattan. Here, the interests of real estate, tourism, and the gourmet retail trade feed off the ever bounteous platter of symbolic capital served up by Art’s self-generating veneer. “Artistic license” goes a long way in the space of a few short blocks. As a result, SoHo, like the Central Business Districts of Wall Street and Midtown, is both of the city and not of it. Unlike the CBDs, SoHo’s privileged air of exemption is seen to be earned by serving some god other than Mammon. By now, everyone knows the heroic narrative of the establishment of SoHo’s artists’ community against all odds; how the original “urban pioneers” of the mid ’60s took a stand against the state-land nexus of developers and city bureaucrats by inventing a new kind of urban environment through the practice of loft renovation. The subsequent organized struggle of artists for legal recognition and community protection was seen as an unanticipated triumph of collective social action, a shining example of how citizens working together can outbid the rules of the speculation market and create an alternative urban community not beholden to the designs of the city’s corporate masters. By now, this narrative’s heroic luster is wearing a little thin, and it is a matter of debate whether the creation of SoHo was ever a spontaneous artists’ initiative or whether its epic origins lay in some steep barometric trough of the investment climate that rendered land values so dormant that only the presence of a culture industry could stimulate renewed development.

Whatever the answer, the integrity of the idea of an “artists’ community” has been seriously eroded by events in the late spring of this year, when zealous opposition on the part of residents, gallery owners, and merchants to the proposed siting of an AIDS treatment facility in SoHo caused one almighty row within the community. Notwithstanding the city’s “fair share” policy of equitably distributing social-service facilities, both “beneficial” and “burdensome,” SoHo hosts virtually none of these sites, while its own population has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the city. Accordingly, the local Community Board welcomed a proposal by Housing Works, a nonprofit provider of services for homeless with HIV/AIDS (and, frequently, with histories of chronic substance use and/or mental illness), for a day treatment center for their recently housed clients. Not even Housing Works, accustomed to fierce resistance from conservative block associations, expected the resulting storm of opposition from a community with a reputation for supporting progressive social work—mostly elsewhere. The SoHo Alliance, with a long activist experience of successfully protecting the neighborhood against character-altering development, initiated a campaign of misinformation about the proposed center, whipping up a phobic squall of hysteria among residents and business people. Most of the resulting fantasies were drawn, chapter and verse, from some tabloid bible of white-middleclass urban dread. One such fantasy circulating at the time conjured up the image of junkies lurching out of the facility and stabbing neighborhood babies with HIV-infected needles. This truly was the Great SoHo Freakout of 1993.

Reading the letters of NIMBYist opposition sent to city and state officials (viewed and cited here as a matter of public record) was particularly harrowing since I live on the block of the proposed Greene Street site, and since I discovered, in the process, how many of my neighbors were bigots. Read as an ethnographic archive, the letters are an evocative document of a community’s self-image of its social environment. Most of the letters appeal in some way to the exceptionalism of SoHo, to its social “fragility,” to its history as a pristine haven of “decency” in an “unlivable city,” “a uniquely stable community,” “a true middle class family oriented community,” “one of the city’s few neighborhood successes . . . vibrant, appealing and largely crimefree,” plagued most recently by “aggressive beggars” and now threatened by the AIDS facility with “the transportation of hundreds of drug abusers and their inevitable retinue of dealers and violent types” followed by “the muggings and the burglaries and weapons and shootings and people living in doorways.” Reading this stuff, you begin to think that some people must believe they are living in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, and here indeed is the kind of plea Mr. Rogers himself might make: “Please don’t chase us out of our neighborhood. Let us live in peace.” Others were more apocalyptic: “It won’t be long before every resident who can leave SoHo, will leave SoHo. Every gallery. Every boutique. It will be just another place to buy drugs and get high.” Brokers wrote, attesting to the “negative fallout” on loft buyers. Gallery owners wrote, worried about the impact on visiting European art collectors unused to “problems relating to drugs, homelessness, [and] mentally ill individuals.” Esthetes wrote, wringing their hands about the effect on “the most noteworthy street in SoHo for Cast-Iron architecture.” (Wot? more urine-induced rust?) Law-and-order types wrote, demanding to see the criminal records of Housing Works’ clients. Someone in my neighboring building wrote, inveighing against shoppers on the adjoining street—“Canal Street lures thousands of walking scum every day”—and suggesting that the city “purge” the neighborhood of their presence rather than “import more customers” for the “pornographers and brothels.” Family values ran high throughout, as did cheesy appeals to children’s vulnerability. Aside from the strong racist and classist undercurrents, the authors of the letters seemed to feel that they were being punished in some way, not only for being good liberal people but for living in a good liberal community. As one overwrought caller to Housing Works put it, “Why are you making me look like a bigot?” Is this the true psychology of the liberal conscience or what? Inevitably, or so it seemed, someone seriously proposed a support group for liberals who had opposed the site.

For those seriously interested in advancing AIDS care (including the many SoHo residents, artists, and gallerists who subsequently joined the advocacy group SoHo for AIDS Care), the relevance of this brouhaha to the world of art might have been limited had the principle of artists’ communitarianism not been invoked so often by opponents of the site as a rule of exclusion and discrimination. In the by-now-famous letter (a historical document in its own right) from gallerist Tony Shafrazi, “the SoHo community” is glorified in the usual fashion as a national treasure, now threatened by the alien presence of people “who have absolutely nothing to do with the world of art or culture” (Shafrazi’s emphasis). No small irony lies behind Shafrazi’s and others’ evocation of this idea of community. After all, the earliest artist residents in this area had started a cooperative movement aimed at establishing a utopian community, self-owned and organized along anarchist principles of self-determination. This idea of community is still prized above all in that tradition of political ecology committed to the values of urbane tolerance, civility, and radical democracy. But the phobic self-image released like a toxic cloud over the proposed AIDS treatment site is so far removed from these values that one is left wondering whether there is anything, in the social practice of modern communitarianism, that distinguishes SoHo today from Simi Valley.

The SoHo Alliance, which opposed Housing Works, is the successor to the original cooperative SoHo Artist Tenant Association, which waged successful zoning battles with city commissions partly by arguing that artists were engaged in “light manufacturing.” Over 20 years later, the city’s Building Commission, under strong pressure, reversed an earlier oral decision and ruled that a “manufacturing” district like SoHo required the Housing Works project to adapt to special zoning codes for health facilities, thereby rendering the Greene Street site impractical. The other, more alarming irony at work in the whole affair was that the images of HIV/AIDS most “acceptable” to Housing Works opponents were clearly those of white gay male artists, once associated with the dominant media image of the disease, but now somewhat outnumbered by the clients of color and/or drug users that AIDS organizations like Housing Works primarily serve today. If only the disease had been confined to artists, if only it were an artist’s disease (and not the disease of—the Other), then art could have contained the disease, just as art, in its Modernist version, contains the world through its formal ordering and by keeping its contagious element at bay. In retrospect, this Modernist ideology of art had played no small part in the whole idea of an artists’ community in SoHo. The rhetoric of immunity and contagion that was central to Modernist purity surfaced with a vengeance within a community well served by its history of self-protection and preservation (with the help of the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture) to discriminate and exclude the wrong kind of outsider. The result was the kind of communitarianism that gives citizenship a bad name.

Andrew Ross is the director of the American Studies Program at New York University. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.

Thanks are due, for interviews, to Anna Blume, Daniel Wolfe, Charles King, Noel Alicea, and Keith Cylar.